Direct Observation and Environmental Surveys
In crime analysis and crime mapping, we can often use data that has already been
collected for us, like official records of crimes, 911 calls, offender databases, etc.
However, sometimes you just can’t beat a little bit of old-fashioned footwork.
Sometimes, you just need to go to the place where the crime is happening and
take a good look around. A few solutions to the crime problem might be staring
you right in the face!
Environmental surveys are used to systematically observe the physical features of
a place, e.g. the lighting, parking spaces, number of windows, presence of graffiti
or other vandalism. Direct observation refers to observing a place over days or
weeks to determine the social environment of the place – that is, not the physical
characteristics, but how people use this space. Who uses this space, what do they
do here, and at what time of day? You can see how knowing this information
could be important for filling in your “crime triangle” and understanding your
unique crime problem – and the solution to it.
For direct observation, researchers recommend observing the area for 20
minutes at a time during time periods of interest – for example, if your crime
seems to be happening a lot at night, you would want to observe the area at
night. If you’re not sure when the crime is happening, you might need to make
observations at different times or different days (e.g. weekends vs weekdays,
morning vs afternoon). You should always be unobtrusive when doing direct
observation. You don’t want people to change their behavior because they know
you are watching them. “Be cool,” as they say!
Here are some examples of how environmental surveys and direct observation
have been used in crime research:
1. A crime analyst studying the problem of thefts from parking lots conducts
an environmental survey to determine how many vehicles in particular
parking lots are locked, how many have antitheft devices, how many have
valuables left in view, etc.